Whenever neoconservatives and liberals chant in unison about American policy in the Middle East — as when they championed the Iraq invasion, for example, or the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, or the thwarted attempt to topple the Assad regime in Syria — it means we are being told a pack of lies. Par for the course is the hysterical response to President Donald Trump’s ‘betrayal’ of the Kurds in the wake of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria.
Turkey’s goal was to repatriate at least two million of 3.6 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey in a border zone controlled, until the invasion began, by the US-allied, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara considers that group to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which is also active in the region, has committed countless atrocities inside Turkey and is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and America.
Since Turkey was never going to back down, Middle East pundits appeared to be arguing that Trump should actually have risked going to war with a fellow Nato member that houses American nuclear weapons at its Incirlik Air Base. Worse, this would have been in defense of the Kurds, with whom the US has no defense treaty and whose ad hoc alliance with the US in Syria was formed with the explicit and limited goal of fighting the now defeated Islamic State. Going into battle against the Turks would also, of course, have meant betraying a historic ally, not to mention potentially causing the outbreak of a third world war.
Even more bizarrely, almost all the pundits and politicians are of the absurd opinion that — amid the endless cycle of war, revolution and terrorism in that cursed part of the world — we should once again foolishly see this scenario (as in Iraq and Libya) as a simple, folkloric tale of good vs evil. This time around, on one side are the secular, heroic Kurdish freedom fighters, lovers of democracy and steadfast American allies. On the other there are the bloodthirsty foot-soldiers from Turkey, a country that wants to annihilate them. As usual when it comes to the Middle East, almost all the pundits and politicians are talking balderdash.
That the reality on the ground is far more complicated will not be news to those who live in the region, but whose opinions are rarely taken into account by western commentators. For, in stark contrast to our rose-tinted admiration of the Kurds, they are resented, if not loathed, by many of the non-Kurds they live alongside or rule over in their self-declared autonomous zones. After decades of pushing for eventual statehood, the Kurds can claim only Israel as a true friend in the region. Almost needless to say, this is why the Lindsey Grahams of this world support them. But being allied, however tentatively, to the Jewish state sure is one way to guarantee that your cause will find little favor on the proverbial Arab street.
The estimated 30 million Kurds who straddle the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia have never had a homeland, but arrogantly claim that their shared historic, ethnic, linguistic and cultural roots entitle them to one. To understand why this causes such resentment among Arabs and others whose resource-rich land the Kurds seek to steal, imagine for a moment that the same scenario was playing out in Europe. For example, what would happen if on that continent and on the same pretext the estimated 10 million Roma — who, like the Kurds, are traditionally a nomadic people — moved to establish a state encompassing huge swathes of Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. And they partly did this by engaging in terrorism, targeting civilians with the financial and military support of, say, China. Would the reaction of the indigenous European populations be any less hostile than that of Turkey in northern Syria? If anything, the Roma scenario would be more understandable, because the Kurds have only existed in large numbers in Iraq and Syria since the early 20th century, when they arrived from Turkey as refugees.
Such an elucidation of the Kurdish plight is hardly meticulous. It should be pointed out that they have suffered at various times horrible persecution. However, we do not have to get bogged down in the region’s internecine inter-ethnic rivalries to take a more pragmatic view of the end of our brief alliance with them. Are the Kurds really so uniquely virtuous and victimized that they deserve our moral and material support in a way, for instance, that the Yemenis do not? Can they not have been both oppressed and oppressor? What has actually happened when they have flirted with democracy? With American troops initially caught in the crossfire of war between them and the Turks, should ordinary Americans have been will-
ing to sacrifice young men and women in uniform in their name? Alternatively, might Trump have been right to have pulled all US troops out of harm’s way, paving the way for Syria, Turkey and Russia to clean up the mess in their own backyard?
Perhaps the biggest myth being propagated by the media regarding the Kurds in Syria is that they were singularly instrumental in defeating Isis and that, with their defeat, the terrorist outfit will instantaneously re-emerge from the war-torn landscape. To take the second point first, the roughly 2,000 foreign Isis fighters (mainly from Europe and Chechnya) and 10,000 Arabs languishing in detention camps run by the Kurds in northeastern Syria are disheveled, demoralized, unarmed, and hundreds of miles from the final jihadist bastion of Idlib in northwestern Syria (where it is far from clear they would be welcome anyway by the non-Isis jihadis who control the province). In short, the Isis leadership has been decimated, to the extent that the terror outfit is to all intents and purposes no longer a meaningful threat in Syria.
It is therefore preposterous for the media to take seriously the scaremongering from politicians that these last remnants of the failed caliphate, even if they do escape en masse, will prove to be a serious threat to the battle-hardened Syrians and Russians (and Turks themselves if they are true to their word). In the meantime, by threatening to abandon the camps, the Kurds were shamelessly blackmailing America in a way that was no less contemptible than Ankara’s threat to unleash millions of refugees into Europe if criticism of their invasion was not tempered. Talk about stabbing an ally in the back.
In any event, there was a practical solution open to the Kurds from the outset, which was to hand over the camps to the Syrian Arab Army. Hilariously, because the Syrians eventually rode to their rescue, this is now the most likely outcome. That means the hated Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is doing what everyone was criticizing Trump for not having done. Watching the politicians and pundits trying to square that circle is frankly exhilarating. Outrage in Washington at this development, after all, is predicated on ignoring the fact that the Assad regime in Damascus is the internationally recognized and therefore legitimate Syrian government. The area the Kurds were claiming as their own — including the prison camps — was always sovereign Syrian territory, and the US troops were there illegally.
The Kurds’ role in defeating Isis, while important, pales into insignificance when compared to the heroic sacrifices of the Syrians, Russians, Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias. If fighting the jihadis was the basis for our alliance with the Kurds, why do we not logically give these other players their due? Disgracefully, we have shown them absolutely no gratitude whatsoever. Moreover, the Syrian Kurds have treated the Assyrians in their region disgracefully — closing down all Assyrian schools, for example, because they refused to teach a curriculum imposed on them that emphasized Kurdish supremacy, and the Assyrians will therefore welcome the arrival of Syrian government forces. After all, they will never forgive the Kurds for enthusiastically joining the Ottomans in the early 20th century when they systematically slaughtered the Assyrians.
In contrast, Hezbollah liberated numerous Christian villages on the Syrian-Lebanese borders, and Syrian Christian militias not infrequently fought alongside the Lebanese Shia militia battling the Sunni jihadis. In other ways, too, the Kurds’ behavior has hardly been exemplary. They have ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of Arabs from land they have conquered. As for their apparent love of democracy, just look at what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan after the region gained greater autonomy following the 2003 US-led invasion. The mafia-like government was so corrupt and repressive that it put to shame any tin-pot Arab dictatorship you care to mention.
Another thing the neoconservatives and liberals have in common when it comes to the Middle East, apart from wanting to bomb everything in sight, is the racist belief that the locals are incapable of resolving their problems and therefore need the US military to lord it over them. Thankfully, Trump has a different, more compassionate view. Despite his endless flip-flopping, he is passionately opposed to the endless Middle Eastern wars and determined to allow the major players in the region to take responsibility for their actions. It is a policy that is paying dividends.
Trump’s decision to rule out a military response to a presumed Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in September shook the Saudi royal court to its foundations. But as a result, the Saudis are open to negotiations with the Yemenis to bring that ghastly war to an end. And they have begun peace talks with Iran. In Syria, too, the most likely outcome of Trump stepping aside to allow for Turkey’s invasion is a Russian-brokered peace deal on the back of US sanctions against Turkey that reins in the Kurdish terrorists, protects the rest of the Kurdish population and restores Syria’s control over a region that contains almost all of its oil, farmland and water supplies. So by pulling US troops out of harm’s way, Trump, rather than betraying the Kurds, has saved their bacon.
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2019 US edition.